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ISS: Transition

Feb 2, 2022

Initiatives and Programs

NASA Extends Operations of the ISS to 2030 and Space Station Transition Plan

 

• January 31, 2022: The International Space Station is a unique laboratory that is returning enormous scientific, educational, and technological developments to benefit people on Earth and is enabling our ability to travel into deep space. The Biden-Harris Administration's commitment to extend space station operations until 2030 will enable the United States to continue to reap these benefits for the next decade while U.S. industry develops commercial destinations and markets for a thriving space economy. 1)

As NASA looks forward to a decade of results from research and technology development aboard the International Space Station, the agency is taking steps to ensure a successful transition of operations to commercial services. In response to Congressional direction, NASA has now provided an updated International Space Station Transition Report that details the goals for the next decade of station operations leading to a smooth transition to commercial services, the steps being taken to develop both the supply and demand side of the low-Earth orbit commercial economy, and the technical steps and budget required for transition.

"The International Space Station is entering its third and most productive decade as a groundbreaking scientific platform in microgravity," said Robyn Gatens, director of the International Space Station at NASA Headquarters. "This third decade is one of results, building on our successful global partnership to verify exploration and human research technologies to support deep space exploration, continue to return medical and environmental benefits to humanity, and lay the groundwork for a commercial future in low-Earth orbit. We look forward to maximizing these returns from the space station through 2030 while planning for transition to commercial space destinations that will follow."

Today, with U.S. commercial crew and cargo transportation systems online, the station is busier than ever. The ISS National Laboratory, responsible for utilizing 50 percent of NASA's resources aboard the space station, hosts hundreds of experiments from other government agencies, academia, and commercial users to return benefits to people and industry on the ground. Meanwhile, NASA's research and development activities aboard are advancing the technologies and procedures that will be necessary to send the first woman and first person of color to the Moon and the first humans to Mars.

The extension of operations to 2030 will continue to return these benefits to the United States and to humanity as a whole while preparing for a successful transition of capabilities to one or more commercially-owned and -operated LEO destinations (CLDs). NASA has entered into a contract for commercial modules to be attached to a space station docking port and awarded space act agreements for design of three free-flying commercial space stations. U.S. industry is developing these commercial destinations to begin operations in the late 2020s for both government and private-sector customers, concurrent with space station operations, to ensure these new capabilities can meet the needs of the United States and its partners.

"The private sector is technically and financially capable of developing and operating commercial low-Earth orbit destinations, with NASA's assistance. We look forward to sharing our lessons learned and operations experience with the private sector to help them develop safe, reliable, and cost-effective destinations in space," said Phil McAlister, director of commercial space at NASA Headquarters. "The report we have delivered to Congress describes, in detail, our comprehensive plan for ensuring a smooth transition to commercial destinations after retirement of the International Space Station in 2030."

It is NASA's goal to be one of many customers of these commercial destination providers, purchasing only the goods and services the agency needs. Commercial destinations, along with commercial crew and cargo transportation, will provide the backbone of the low-Earth orbit economy after the International Space Station retires.

The decision to extend operations and NASA's recent awards to develop commercial space stations together ensure uninterrupted, continuous human presence and capabilities; both are critical facets of NASA's International Space Station transition plan.

Figure 1: ISS 2030: NASA Extends Operations of the International Space Station (video credit: Video Producer: Sonnet Apple)

• December 31, 2021: NASA Administrator Bill Nelson announced today the Biden-Harris Administration's commitment to extend International Space Station (ISS) operations through 2030, and to work with our international partners in Europe (ESA, European Space Agency), Japan (JAXA, Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency), Canada (CSA, Canadian Space Agency), and Russia (State Space Corporation Roscosmos) to enable continuation of the groundbreaking research being conducted in this unique orbiting laboratory through the rest of this decade. 2) 3)

"The International Space Station is a beacon of peaceful international scientific collaboration and for more than 20 years has returned enormous scientific, educational, and technological developments to benefit humanity. I'm pleased that the Biden-Harris Administration has committed to continuing station operations through 2030," Nelson said. "The United States' continued participation on the ISS will enhance innovation and competitiveness, as well as advance the research and technology necessary to send the first woman and first person of color to the Moon under NASA's Artemis program and pave the way for sending the first humans to Mars. As more and more nations are active in space, it's more important than ever that the United States continues to lead the world in growing international alliances and modeling rules and norms for the peaceful and responsible use of space."

Earlier funded for use for through 2024, NASA has been seeking ways to hand over its day-to-day operations of the space station to commercial entities in order to free up appropriations for its Artemis program of crewed lunar exploration.

The extension will also provide more time to ensure a seamless handover of low Earth orbit research and commercial activities from the International Space Station to new private outposts. NASA has recently entered into agreements with companies to develop commercial space stations either as a free-flying platforms or, as in one case, as a temporary extension to the International Space Station before separating on its own.

Over the past two decades, the United States has maintained a continuous human presence in orbit around the Earth to test technologies, conduct scientific research, and develop skills needed to explore farther than ever before. The unique microgravity laboratory has hosted more than 3,000 research investigations from over 4,200 researchers across the world and is returning enormous scientific, educational, and technological developments to benefit people on Earth. Nearly 110 countries and areas have participated in activities aboard the station, including more than 1,500,000 students per year in STEM activities.

Instruments aboard the ISS, used in concert with free-flying instruments in other orbits, help us measure the stresses of drought and the health of forests to enable improved understanding of the interaction of carbon and climate at different time scales. Operating these and other climate-related instruments through the end of the decade will greatly increase our understanding of the climate cycle.

Extending operations through 2030 will continue another productive decade of research advancement and enable a seamless transition of capabilities in low-Earth orbit to one or more commercially owned and operated destinations in the late 2020s. The decision to extend operations and NASA's recent awards to develop commercial space stations together ensure uninterrupted, continuous human presence and capabilities; both are critical facets of NASA's International Space Station transition plan.

ESA has previously voiced support for extending operations through 2030, and JAXA has certified that its Kibo laboratory and related components are capable of supporting activities until then. Roscosmos has proposed leaving the partnership in 2025 in favor of deploying its own space station but at the same time has recently attached a new multipurpose laboratory module ("Nauka") and a new docking port ("Prichal') to its segment of the International Space Station.

Then there are the growing tensions between U.S. and Russia on more earthly matters, though the space station partnership has survived similar past challenges.

Prior to the White House's direction, Congress considered legislation to continue use of the space station through 2030. Bills introduced in both the House of Representatives and Senate garnered bipartisan support but did not reach a vote.

"As more and more nations are active in space, it's more important than ever that the United States continues to lead the world in growing international alliances and modeling rules and norms for the peaceful and responsible use of space," Nelson said.

Figure 2: The ISS as pictured from a SpaceX Crew Dragon during a November 2021 fly around (image credit: NASA)
Figure 2: The ISS as pictured from a SpaceX Crew Dragon during a November 2021 fly around (image credit: NASA)

 


 

 

Developments and events of the Space Station Transition Plan

• February 23, 2022: NASA's plans to shift from the International Space Station to commercial space stations may force one key partner to rethink how it cooperates in LEO (Low Earth Orbit). 4)

- Speaking at a panel on space diplomacy organized by George Washington University's Space Policy Institute Feb. 23, Sylvie Espinasse, head of the European Space Agency's Washington office, said the current arrangements between ISS partners to barter resources won't work well on future commercial stations in low Earth orbit.

- "ESA-NASA cooperation on the ISS is based on non-exchange of funds and barter of goods and services between the partners," she said. "This allows ESA to use its asset in orbit, the Columbus module, and to fly its European astronauts."

- Once NASA shifts to commercial stations, though, "ESA will probably not be in a position to buy commercial services from U.S. providers for its research activities in LEO or to fly its astronauts," she warned. "This will probably not be acceptable for our member states." Buying services from U.S. companies, she explained, would contradict an ESA mandate to support Europe's space industry.

- ESA doesn't have a formal plan for operations in LEO after the ISS is retired in 2030 but Espinasse said there were several possible options if the agency can't buy services directly from American companies. One would be for NASA to be an intermediary, buying services from commercial stations and then bartering with ESA as it does today on the ISS.

- "NASA becomes a broker between ESA and U.S. providers," she said. "But I don't think this kind of solution can be a long-term solution. It's too complex."

- A long-term solution, she said, needs to involve some common interest among the partners. "In the case of Europe and ESA, we will have to find our own way to low Earth orbit with our industry," she said. That could involve a "fully European" solution for a commercial station or industrial partnerships that include American and European companies that jointly operate a station.

- An example of such a partnership she cited is cooperation between Northrop Grumman and Thales Alenia Space on the Cygnus spacecraft, developed by Northrop but using major components built by Thales. "This could be beneficial for European industry, participating in these consortia, and may be acceptable for our member states." Notably, Northrop is one of three companies that won NASA Commercial LEO Destination (CLD) awards in December, proposing a station that leverages its work on the Cygnus spacecraft.

- NASA's own ISS transition plan, published in January, envisioned a role for current ISS partners on commercial space stations but offered few details about how future arrangements would work.

- "Each Partner is currently working to identify its needs in LEO through and beyond the ISS, and all have expressed interest in the expansion of commercial uses of LEO," the document states. "It is NASA's intention to ensure continued collaboration with Partners on a U.S. CLD through government-to-government, government- to-industry, or industry-to-industry arrangements."

- "NASA is evaluating the capabilities and desires of the existing ISS Partnership, as well as new entrants to the space field, to partner in continuing LEO operations post-ISS," the report added, including talks with partners on their "interest in capabilities on U.S. CLDs to include their potential requirements in the Agency's forward planning."

- ESA, meanwhile, has started what Espinasse called "an internal reflection on post-ISS and how to fulfill European needs in LEO." At a Feb. 16 European space summit, ESA announced it would create a "high-level advisory group" to examine options for European human spaceflight, with an interim report due before ESA's next ministerial meeting in November. "We will see where this leads us in the coming months," she said.

- She added that the ISS partnership model should work well on exploration efforts like the NASA-led lunar Gateway, where ESA, the Canadian Space Agency and the Japanese space agency JAXA are all contributing components in exchange for flying astronauts to the moon. "There, the model of cooperation with the partners — CSA, JAXA and ESA — is quite similar to the one on the ISS," she said. Lunar surface operations, she added, could enable additional partnership opportunities for those agencies and others.

- "I do not see one model of cooperation in the future, something as monolithic as the ISS," she concluded, "but rather different models tailored on the common objectives, requirements and priorities of the various partners."

• February 6, 2022: NASA expects that retiring the International Space Station in favor of leasing capacity on commercial space stations will ultimately save the agency up to $1.8 billion per year. 5)

Figure 3: Northrop Grumman, one of three companies winning commercial space station development awards from NASA Dec. 2, proposes building a station leveraging work on its Cygnus cargo spacecraft and HALO module, among other projects (image credit: Northrop Grumman)
Figure 3: Northrop Grumman, one of three companies winning commercial space station development awards from NASA Dec. 2, proposes building a station leveraging work on its Cygnus cargo spacecraft and HALO module, among other projects (image credit: Northrop Grumman)

- That estimate comes from an updated ISS transition report published by NASA last week. The report was submitted to Congress as an update to a 2018 report, required by a provision of a 2017 NASA authorization bill seeking information on the agency's utilization of the ISS and how it will shift to future commercial stations.

- NASA currently spends about $3.1 billion a year on the space station program, with more than $1.3 billion going to operations of the station and research performed there, and nearly $1.8 billion on crew and cargo transportation. A chart included in the transition report projected that spending to remain flat through fiscal year 2027.

- Spending would then temporarily increase in fiscal year 2028 as NASA begins efforts to decommission the station. That decommissioning would include deorbiting the station in 2031 through the use of three Progress cargo spacecraft, or possibly Cygnus cargo spacecraft, to bring the station down over an uninhabited region of the South Pacific Ocean regularly used for deorbiting spacecraft.

- Spending on both ISS operations and research, and on transportation to the station, would be gradually phased out from 2028 through 2031, as spending increases on purchases of commercial low Earth orbit destination services, using commercial stations whose development NASA is currently supporting through the Commercial LEO Destinations (CLD) program. The report estimates that NASA will spend about $1 billion a year on CLD services by 2033.

- A few hundred million dollars of costs currently borne by the ISS program will be shifted to other parts of the agency, the report states. That is primarily mission control and related operations as well as civil servant labor.

- The rest will be savings: $1.3 billion in 2031, increasing to $1.8 billion in 2033. "This amount can be applied to NASA's deep space exploration initiatives, allowing the Agency to explore further and faster into deep space. This amount can also be applied to other NASA programs," the report states.

- Phil McAlister, director of commercial spaceflight at NASA Headquarters, offered a similar estimate at a meeting of the NASA Advisory Council's Human Exploration and Operations Committee Jan. 19. "We anticipate, once we do the retirement, we're going to save the agency about $1.5 billion" per year, he said. "That is going to be a key enabler for our Artemis missions going forward."

- Committee members raised questions about that estimate, noting the high costs of space transportation. "That is primarily going to be dependent on what the prices are, and we don't know what the prices are yet. I don't think even the providers really know," McAlister acknowledged. Part of the work that the three teams, led by Blue Origin, Nanoracks and Northrop Grumman, selected by NASA in December for CLD awards will be to improve the fidelity of their estimated prices.

- He added that NASA's Office of the Chief Financial Officer performaned an independent estimate of cost savings from the transition to commercial space stations and came up with a similar number.

- Part of the estimated cost savings comes from the expectation that NASA will be one of several customers for commercial space stations. "If we are just one of many customers, the providers will be able to amortize their fixed cost over a bigger base," he said. "We will see cost savings just from that alone."

- McAlister added, though, that even if NASA is the largest or sole customer of a commercial station, the agency should still see some savings compared to the ISS. "Initially, they're going to be much smaller than the ISS," he said of commercial stations, and thus cheaper to operate. In addition, NASA's requirements for those stations — hosting at least two astronauts and performing 200 investigations a year — will be less demanding than the ISS, and with less demand for crew and cargo transportation.

- "For those reasons, you're going to see a significant decrease" in costs, he concluded.

 


 

 

Starlab — The Free-Flying Commercial Space Station

October 2021: Nanoracks, in collaboration with its majority owner Voyager Space and Lockheed Martin, has formed a team to develop the first-ever free flying commercial space station. The space station, known as Starlab, will be a continuously crewed commercial platform, dedicated to conducting critical research, fostering industrial activity, and ensuring continued U.S. presence and leadership in low-Earth orbit. Starlab is expected to achieve initial operational capability by 2027. 6) 7)

To meet U.S. government, international space agency, and commercial needs in space, these industry leaders will develop Starlab specifically to enable the growing space economy and meet pent-up customer demand for space services such as materials research, plant growth, and astronaut activity. Together, these companies bring unparalleled experience in commercial space utilization, engineering design and performance, technology innovation, and investment strategy.

"Since the beginning, Nanoracks has sought to own and operate a private space station to fully unlock market demand," says Jeffrey Manber, CEO and Co-Founder of Nanoracks. "Our team has spent the last decade learning the business of space stations, understanding customer needs, charting market growth, and self-investing in private hardware on the ISS like the Bishop Airlock. Nanoracks and our team are excited to work with NASA and our friends across the world as we move forward with Starlab."

NASA recently announced the Commercial Low-Earth Orbit (LEO) Destination (CLD) project to support the development of private space stations. CLD will stimulate a multifaceted LEO economy and provide science and crew capabilities in LEO before the International Space Station (ISS) retires.

Nanoracks will prime the Starlab development effort leveraging over a decade of experience as the pathfinder of and global leader in commercial ISS utilization. Voyager Space, the majority shareholder in Nanoracks, will lead strategy and capital investment and Lockheed Martin, a leader in developing and operating complex spacecraft, will serve as the manufacturer and technical integrator.

The basic elements of the Starlab space station include a large inflatable habitat, designed and built by Lockheed Martin, a metallic docking node, a power and propulsion element, a large robotic arm for servicing cargo and payloads, and a state-of-the-art laboratory system to host a comprehensive research, science, and manufacturing capability. Starlab will be able to continuously host up to four astronauts for conducting critical science and research. - Starlab will have a volume of 340 m3, about three-eighths that of the International Space Station, and generate 60 kw of power. In August, Nanoracks hired a former NASA executive, Marshall Smith, to lead its commercial space station development efforts.

"We're excited to be part of such an innovative and capable team—one that allows each company to leverage their core strengths," said Lisa Callahan, vice president and general manager, Commercial Civil Space at Lockheed Martin. "Lockheed Martin's extensive experience in building complex spacecraft and systems, coupled with Nanoracks' commercial business innovation and Voyager's financial expertise allows our team to create a customer-focused space station that will fuel our future vision. We have invested significantly in habitat technology which enables us to propose a cost-effective, mission-driven spacecraft design for Starlab."

Nanoracks' Starlab business model is designed to enable science, research, and manufacturing for global customers, and bring added value to long-duration sovereign astronaut missions. Starlab will also serve tourism and other commercial and business activities.

"Voyager Space is highly confident in the Starlab business model and its ability to be commercially sustainable and well capitalized," says Dylan Taylor, Voyager Space Chairman & CEO. "Voyager Space sees numerous synergies leveraging the capabilities across our organization's operating businesses, as well as within the Lockheed Martin ecosystem. We see this partnership as just the beginning of our work together."

An estimated 10 to 12 companies submitted proposals for the first phase of the CLD program, with NASA expected to make two to four awards. Axiom Space, which has a NASA award to attach a commercial module to the ISS, has announced plans to use that module as a core of a future space station. Other companies, such as Blue Origin and Sierra Space, have either proposed space station concepts or indicated an interest in stations through job listings. 8)

Worrying about a space station gap

NASA's goal with CLD is to stimulate development of one or more commercial space stations by the late 2020s, allowing the agency to smoothly transition to those stations from the ISS. But at a congressional hearing Oct. 21, witnesses that included a former NASA administrator warned those commercial stations might not be complete before the ISS is retired.

Figure 4: Starlab, a commercial low-Earth orbit space station is being planned for use by 2027 (image credit: Nanoracks)
Figure 4: Starlab, a commercial low-Earth orbit space station is being planned for use by 2027 (image credit: Nanoracks)

"We are not ready for what comes after the International Space Station," said former administrator Jim Bridenstine at a hearing of the Senate Commerce Committee's space subcommittee. "Building a space station takes a long time, especially when you're doing it in a way that's never been done before."

Bridenstine said he supported efforts in the Senate to extend ISS to 2030, but cautioned that the station could suffer a problem at any time before then that would effectively end the program.

He said NASA's CLD program was not sufficiently funded. A Senate appropriations bill this week offered $101 million for the program, the amount requested. "I am telling you, sir, it is still not enough," he said in response to questions from Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas). "The Senate should absolutely declare that NASA needs to tell it when is the objective to have that new station, and the Senate needs to fund the requirements to achieve that."

He didn't offer a dollar amount in the hearing, but did in written testimony. "Congress needs to fund NASA's LEO commercialization efforts at $2 billion per year," he wrote. "If Congress does this, capital markets and entrepreneurs will respond in a way that establishes America as preeminent in LEO human spaceflight at a cost significantly less than the ISS."

The current funding falls short of even supporting NASA's existing $140 million agreement with Axiom Space for access to an ISS port. "That $101 million that Jim is talking about, when you look at how NASA is planning to allocate it, does not meet the commitment to Axiom for 2022," said Mary Lynne Dittmar, executive vice president for government affairs at Axiom Space and another witness at the hearing. "The work that needs to go to the space station side of it, for the station to do the analysis that's needed to ensure that Axiom can reach orbit and dock by 2024, is not funded completely in that amount."

She said NASA needed to provide more details about its ISS transition plans, including specific objectives and requirements. "NASA has yet to clearly define its needs for services after the ISS ends, nor does it plan to do so for some time," she said.

Dittmar and others at the hearing raised the prospect of a "space station gap" where the ISS ends before commercial stations are established. That could drive companies and countries to use China's space station. She noted that U.S. companies have already complained about losing customers to China but did not name specific cases. In August, Nanoracks' Manber said he had lost one customer to China's station.

 

Starlab Highlights

• Volume: 340 m3

• Power: 60 kW

• Payload capability: 22 m3 (equivalent to the ISS)

• Astronauts: 4 (continuously crewed)

 

 


 

Development status

• December 8, 2021: Voyager Space, a global leader in space exploration, and Nanoracks, a Voyager Space company and the world's leading provider of commercial space services, today announced that The Universities Space Research Association (USRA), ZIN Technologies, The Ohio State University, and the International Association of Science Parks and Areas of Innovation have been selected as the founding leadership team of the George Washington Carver (GWC) Science Park on the Starlab commercial space station. The GWC Science Park, established by Nanoracks, is the world's first-ever science park in space, operating today on the International Space Station (ISS), and soon on future commercial platforms. 9)

- "While today marks a major milestone for Nanoracks and our Starlab team, the impact goes far beyond this award," said Dr. Amela Wilson, CEO at Nanoracks. "To receive this support from NASA validates over a decade of Nanoracks' hard work forging commercial access to space, bringing over 1300 commercial payloads from 30 nations to the ISS. This opportunity opens far-reaching possibilities for critical research and commercial industrial activity in LEO. We are honored to be selected as one of three awardees to work with NASA, and we cannot wait to bring our existing global commercial customer base to Starlab."

- The initial $160 million award to Nanoracks is made via a funded Space Act Agreement through 2025. This initial NASA-provided funding will be supplemented with customer pre-buy opportunities and public-private partnerships. Fully owned by Nanoracks, Starlab is planned to reach initial operating capability in 2027, which ensures continuous human presence in LEO by U.S. entities. NASA will have the opportunity to purchase crew and payload services on Starlab through separate services contracts with Nanoracks.

- Nanoracks has unparalleled commercial experience on the ISS. Joined by Voyager Space's sophisticated investment strategy and expertise in operational integration and Lockheed Martin's engineering knowledge and strategic vision, the Starlab team presented a formidable program for the future of LEO commercialization.

- The basic elements of the Starlab space station include a large inflatable habitat, designed and built by Lockheed Martin, a metallic docking node, a power and propulsion element, a large robotic arm for servicing cargo and payloads, and the George Washington Carver (GWC) Science Park. The GWC Science Park is a state-of-the-art laboratory system which will host a comprehensive research, science, and manufacturing capability. Starlab will have the capacity to continuously host up to four astronauts to conduct critical science and research.

- "Starlab is the confluence of Lockheed Martin's rich space expertise and history, Nanoracks' innovation, and Voyager's financial savvy. This team is equipped to aid NASA on its mission to expand access to LEO and to enable a transformative commercial space economy," said Lisa Callahan, Vice President and General Manager, Commercial Civil Space at Lockheed Martin.

- Nanoracks will prime Starlab's development leveraging over a decade of experience as the pathfinder and global leader in commercial ISS utilization. Voyager Space, the majority shareholder in Nanoracks, will lead strategy and capital investment, and Lockheed Martin, a leader in developing and operating complex space technology, will serve as the technical integrator of the new advanced space station.

- "Starlab's impact on space commercialization cannot be understated," said Dylan Taylor, Chairman and CEO at Voyager Space. "Today we are witnessing a major economic shift, where space businesses are tangible, well capitalized, and commercially sustainable. It takes a planet to explore the universe, and we invite the global community to be part of Starlab's success."

• December 2, 2021: Nanoracks, in collaboration with Voyager Space and Lockheed Martin, has been awarded a $160 million contract by NASA to design its Starlab commercial space station as part of the agency's Commercial Low-Earth Orbit (LEO) Development program. Starlab will enable NASA's initiative to stimulate the commercial space economy and provide science and crew capabilities prior to the retirement of the International Space Station (ISS). 10)

- "While today marks a major milestone for Nanoracks and our Starlab team, the impact goes far beyond this award," said Dr. Amela Wilson, CEO at Nanoracks. "To receive this support from NASA validates over a decade of Nanoracks' hard work forging commercial access to space, bringing over 1300 commercial payloads from 30 nations to the ISS. This opportunity opens far-reaching possibilities for critical research and commercial industrial activity in LEO. We are honored to be selected as one of three awardees to work with NASA, and we cannot wait to bring our existing global commercial customer base to Starlab."

- The initial $160 million award to Nanoracks is made via a funded Space Act Agreement through 2025. This initial NASA-provided funding will be supplemented with customer pre-buy opportunities and public-private partnerships. Fully owned by Nanoracks, Starlab is planned to reach initial operating capability in 2027, which ensures continuous human presence in LEO by U.S. entities. NASA will have the opportunity to purchase crew and payload services on Starlab through separate services contracts with Nanoracks.

- Nanoracks has unparalleled commercial experience on the ISS. Joined by Voyager Space's sophisticated investment strategy and expertise in operational integration and Lockheed Martin's engineering knowledge and strategic vision, the Starlab team presented a formidable program for the future of LEO commercialization.

- The basic elements of the Starlab space station include a large inflatable habitat, designed and built by Lockheed Martin, a metallic docking node, a power and propulsion element, a large robotic arm for servicing cargo and payloads, and the George Washington Carver (GWC) Science Park. The GWC Science Park is a state-of-the-art laboratory system which will host a comprehensive research, science, and manufacturing capability. Starlab will have the capacity to continuously host up to four astronauts to conduct critical science and research.

- "Starlab is the confluence of Lockheed Martin's rich space expertise and history, Nanoracks' innovation, and Voyager's financial savvy. This team is equipped to aid NASA on its mission to expand access to LEO and to enable a transformative commercial space economy," said Lisa Callahan, Vice President and General Manager, Commercial Civil Space at Lockheed Martin.

- Nanoracks will prime Starlab's development leveraging over a decade of experience as the pathfinder and global leader in commercial ISS utilization. Voyager Space, the majority shareholder in Nanoracks, will lead strategy and capital investment, and Lockheed Martin, a leader in developing and operating complex space technology, will serve as the technical integrator of the new advanced space station.

- "Starlab's impact on space commercialization cannot be understated," said Dylan Taylor, Chairman and CEO at Voyager Space. "Today we are witnessing a major economic shift, where space businesses are tangible, well capitalized, and commercially sustainable. It takes a planet to explore the universe, and we invite the global community to be part of Starlab's success."

NASA has signed agreements with three U.S. companies to develop designs of space stations and other commercial destinations in space. The agreements are part of the agency's efforts to enable a robust, American-led commercial economy in low-Earth orbit.

The total estimated award amount for all three funded Space Act Agreements is $415.6 million. The companies that received awards are:

• Blue Origin of Kent, Washington, for $130 million (Figure 5)

• Nanoracks LLC, of Houston for $160 million (Figure 4)

• Northrop Grumman Systems Corporation of Dulles, Virginia, for $125.6 million (Figure 6)

NASA seeks to maintain an uninterrupted U.S. presence in low-Earth orbit by transitioning from the International Space Station to other platforms. These awards will stimulate U.S. private sector development of commercial, independent space stations that will be available to both government and private-sector customers.

"Building on our successful initiatives to partner with private industry to deliver cargo, and now our NASA astronauts, to the International Space Station, NASA is once again leading the way to commercialize space activities," said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson. "With commercial companies now providing transportation to low-Earth orbit in place, we are partnering with U.S. companies to develop the space destinations where people can visit, live, and work, enabling NASA to continue forging a path in space for the benefit of humanity while fostering commercial activity in space."

The awards are the first in a two-phase approach to ensure a seamless transition of activity from the International Space Station to commercial destinations. During this first phase, private industry, in coordination with NASA, will formulate and design commercial low-Earth orbit destination capabilities suitable for potential government and private sector needs. The first phase is expected to continue through 2025.

Blue Origin and Sierra Space have partnered to develop Orbital Reef, a commercially owned and operated space station to be built in low-Earth orbit, which will start operating in the second half of this decade. Orbital Reef teammates include Boeing, Redwire Space, Genesis Engineering, and Arizona State University. Orbital Reef's human-centered space architecture is designed to be a "mixed-use space business park" that provides essential infrastructure needed to support all types of human spaceflight activity in low-Earth orbit and can be scaled to serve new markets.

The station's shared infrastructure will support the proprietary needs of diverse U.S. and international users, tenants, and visitors, including those representing research, industry, government, and the commercial sector. Features such as reusable space transportation and advanced automation can minimize cost and complexity to enable the widest range of users. Accommodations, vehicle docking ports, and utilities can all be scaled with growth in market demand.

Nanoracks' commercial low-Earth orbit destination, in collaboration with Voyager Space and Lockheed Martin, is called "Starlab." Starlab is targeted for launch in 2027 on a single flight as a continuously crewed, commercial space station dedicated to conducting advanced research, fostering commercial industrial activity, and ensuring continued U.S. presence and leadership in low-Earth orbit. Starlab is designed for four astronauts and will have power, volume, and a payload capability equivalent to the International Space Station.

Starlab will host the George Washington Carver Science Park featuring four main operational departments – a biology lab, plant habitation lab, physical science and materials research lab, and an open workbench area – to meet the needs of researchers and commercial customers for commercial space activities. The station will be built with flexible growth in mind, featuring interfaces both internal and external to the spacecraft to allow Nanoracks to expand the architecture as new demand sources are identified, and new markets emerge.

Northrop Grumman's design for a modular, commercial destination in low-Earth orbit is built on decades of experience supporting NASA, defense, and commercial programs. The design leverages flight-proven elements, such as the Cygnus spacecraft that provides cargo delivery to the International Space Station, to provide a base module for extended capabilities including science, tourism, industrial experimentation, and the building of infrastructure beyond initial design.

Multiple docking ports will allow future expansion to support crew analog habitats, laboratories, crew airlocks, and facilities capable of artificial gravity, in support of multiple customers. This Space Act Agreement will enable Northrop Grumman to provide a detailed commercialization, operations, and capabilities plan, as well as space station requirements, mission success criteria, risk assessments, key technical and market analysis requirements, and preliminary design activities. Northrop Grumman's team includes Dynetics, with other partners to be announced.

For the second phase of NASA's approach to a transition toward commercial low-Earth orbit destinations, the agency intends to certify for NASA crew member use commercial low-Earth orbit destinations from these and potential other entrants, and ultimately, purchase services from destination providers for crew to use when available. This strategy will provide services the government needs at a lower cost, enabling NASA to focus on its Artemis missions to the Moon and on to Mars while continuing to use low-Earth orbit as a training and proving ground.

NASA estimates the agency's future needs in low-Earth orbit will require continuous accommodations and training for at least two crew members, as well as the ability to support a national orbiting laboratory and the performance of approximately 200 investigations annually to support human research, technology demonstrations, biological and physical science.

Developing commercial destinations in low-Earth orbit is part of NASA's broader efforts to build a robust low-Earth orbit economy, including supporting commercial activity and enabling the first private astronaut mission to the space station. In addition to these new awards NASA selected Axiom Space in January 2020 to design and develop commercial modules to attach to the station. NASA and Axiom recently completed the preliminary design review of two modules as well as the critical design review of the module's primary structure.

By transitioning to a model where commercial industry owns and operates the assets in low-Earth orbit and where NASA is one of many customers, the agency can save on costs to live and work in low-Earth orbit and focus on pushing innovation and exploration of the Moon and Mars through NASA's Artemis missions.

Table 1: NASA Selects Companies to Develop Commercial Destinations in Space 11)
Figure 5: The proposed Orbital Reef station can be expanded over time by adding more modules, but initially will be about one-third the size depicted here (image credit: Blue Origin)
Figure 5: The proposed Orbital Reef station can be expanded over time by adding more modules, but initially will be about one-third the size depicted here (image credit: Blue Origin)
Figure 6: Northrop Grumman, one of three companies winning commercial space station development awards from NASA Dec. 2, proposes building a station leveraging work on its Cygnus cargo spacecraft and HALO module, among other projects (image credit: Northrop Grumman)
Figure 6: Northrop Grumman, one of three companies winning commercial space station development awards from NASA Dec. 2, proposes building a station leveraging work on its Cygnus cargo spacecraft and HALO module, among other projects (image credit: Northrop Grumman)

 

 


1) Erin Mahoney, "NASA Provides Updated International Space Station Transition Plan," NASA Feature, 31 January 2022, URL: https://www.nasa.gov/feature/nasa-provides-updated-international-space-station-transition-plan

2) Brian Dunbar, "Biden-Harris Administration Extends Space Station Operations Through 2030," 31 December 2021, URL: https://blogs.nasa.gov/spacestation/2021/12/31/biden-harris-administration-extends-space-station-operations-through-2030/

3) Robert Z. Perlman, "White House directs NASA to extend International Space Station operations through 2030," Space.com, 31 December 2021, URL: https://www.space.com/white-house-international-space-station-2030-extension

4) Jeff Foust, "ISS transition to commercial stations poses challenges for partners," SpaceNews, 23 February 2022, URL: https://spacenews.com/iss-transition-to-commercial-stations-poses-challenges-for-partners/

5) Jeff Foust, "NASA outlines cost savings from ISS transition," SpaceNews, 6 February 2022, URL: https://spacenews.com/nasa-outlines-cost-savings-from-iss-transition/

6) "Nanoracks, Voyager Space, and Lockheed Martin Teaming to Develop Commercial Space Station," Nanoracks Press Release, 21 October 2021, URL: https://nanoracks.com/nanoracks-voyager-space-and-lockheed-martin-teaming-to-develop-commercial-space-station/

7) "Starlab - The First Ever Free-flying Commercial Space Station," Nanoracks, 2021, URL: https://nanoracks.com/starlab/

8) Jeff Foust, "Nanoracks and Lockheed Martin partner on commercial space station project," SpaceNews, 21 October 2021, URL: https://spacenews.com/nanoracks-and-lockheed-martin-partner-on-commercial-space-station-project/

9) "Nanoracks and Voyager Space Announce Founding Leadership Team for George Washington Carver Science Park Onboard Starlab," Nanoracks Press Release, 8 December 2021, URL: https://nanoracks.com/nanoracks-and-voyager-space-announce-founding-leadership-team-for-george-washington-carver-science-park-onboard-starlab/

10) "Nanoracks, Voyager Space, and Lockheed Martin Awarded NASA Contract to Build First-of-its-Kind Commercial Space Station," Nanoracks Press Release, 02 December 2021, URL: https://nanoracks.com/nanoracks-voyager-space-and-lockheed-martin-awarded-nasa-contract/

11) Stephanie Schierholz, Gary Jordan, "NASA Selects Companies to Develop Commercial Destinations in Space," NASA Press Release 21-164, 2 December 2021, URL: https://www.nasa.gov/press-release/nasa-selects-companies-to-develop-commercial-destinations-in-space
 


The information compiled and edited in this article was provided by Herbert J. Kramer from his documentation of: "Observation of the Earth and Its Environment: Survey of Missions and Sensors" (Springer Verlag) as well as many other sources after the publication of the 4th edition in 2002. - Comments and corrections to this article are always welcome for further updates (eoportal@symbios.space).

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